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   Chapter 5 No.5

Free-Wrench By Joseph R. Lallo Characters: 5438

Updated: 2018-01-19 12:02

Nita lingered for a moment more, looking thoughtfully at the unfinished figurine, then placed it on the mantle and left her mother to rest.

Chapter 2

That evening, as the sun was setting, Nita arrived at the steamworks for her shift. The events of the morning were still heavy on her mind, but she tried to push them aside and focus on the task at hand. The day shift had removed the broken section of pipe and the jammed valve, but daylight had run out before the replacement could be installed, leaving it for Nita and her partner to do. Tonight that partner happened to be Drew.

"Blast it, " he muttered to himself. "I must have left my five-sixteenths in the locker. Do you have yours?"

Nita slipped a wrench from her tool sash. "You really ought to take better care of your tools."

"Yeah, yeah. Give me a break; I've got other things on my mind today."

"Oh, that's right. Your picture device. You know, trading with the outsiders is strictly enforced and very limited. I don't think we've had a legitimate shipment in three years. How exactly do you plan to get away with using this device if you manage to buy one?"

"I'll just say I found it in a curio shop from the old days before we closed the borders. For all anyone knows, the cam-er-a is an ancient invention out there. Heaven knows they come up with some remarkable gadgets. And fine spirits, too. We make better wine, but the whiskey from out there? Hits you like a hammer."

Nita raised the new valve into place and steadied it while Drew began to tighten the bolts.

"Do they have anything besides pointless toys and things to feed your vices?"

"Possibly. Once they pulled out the liquor I stopped paying attention to anything else."

Nita narrowed her eyes.

"Relax, Nita. I kid. They have all sorts of things. They make excellent optics. My best telescope came from them. They're always eager to show off their firearms as well, but even I'm not foolish enough to be caught with one of those. There are rare delicacies, exotic fabrics and pelts, tinctures, ointments…"

"They sell medicines?"

"Well, I wouldn't call them medicines. One was to regrow hair. Another was to, er, restore vigor."

"Oh. Well, do they work?"

"What are you implying?" he asked, nervously running his fingers through his hair and checking his reflection in the fresh pipe section.

"You know what I mean."

"If you're so interested, why don't you come along? We'll take my brother's boat up to Moor Spires. They're due to dock there in a few hours. They'll be leaving just before morning, so hopefully this replacement doesn't take all night, and we can skip out a bit early."

"Well… no. I didn't bring any money."

"No need.

They don't have any use for our currency. Why would they? Fortunately for us, it is just as difficult for them to get Calderan goods as it is for us to get theirs. Sea salt, jewelry, anything we make is worth more than gold to them. If you really want to get in their good graces, bring them something made of trith."

"Trith? The stuff they make the coils from?"

He nodded. "They can't make it out there. They'll trade just about anything to get some."

Another gift from the volcano, trith was first created centuries before by some of the very first settlers on the islands. An alloy made of half a dozen metals and a special mineral found only in the volcanic stone of the mountains, it had properties that no other metal could match. Paper-thin ribbons of the stuff could be made into coil springs that could store ten times the energy of a steel one, seemingly without fatigue. Thin bars of the stuff were stronger than several inches of iron, and once forged not even the heart of Tellahn's volcano could manage to do much more than soften it. It didn't rust or even tarnish. It was little surprise that its creators named it trith, which, in the old tongue, meant perfection. The formula for creating it existed as a closely guarded secret, and making it proved quite expensive, but it was nonetheless common in Caldera thanks to the fact that nearly all that had ever been made was still in use.

Perhaps seeing her will weakening, Drew pressed on. "Come on, if nothing else you'll get a chance to meet someone from outside of Caldera. Not many who can say they've done that."

She turned the offer over in her head. It would be a lie to say she'd never been curious about things beyond the Calderan borders. One of the few regrets she had about working in the steamworks was the simple fact that her skills would be of use in few places on the isles, and thus there would never likely be anything new or exciting to look forward to in her career. A small but vocal part of her yearned for novelty, to see new sights and experience new things. If nothing else, these black-market folks promised plenty to see.

"All right. I'll join you this time. But neither of us are going anywhere if we don't get this valve in."

Few better ways exist to ensure problems will arise in a given task than by making plans for afterward. Halfway through completing the installation they discovered that one of the mounting holes hadn't been machined properly. Once it had been removed, corrected, and fitted again, the supply crew managed to send along the wrong size nuts and bolts. The horizon was already starting to get rosy when they finally finished up the project and were given permission to leave.

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